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by Mindy Belz
In the past year it has supported clemency for 11 Puerto Rican terrorists, lobbied for gun control, and asked state legislatures to end the death penalty. It asked several states in the South to end sawmill operations in an effort to protect the forests. But the United Methodist Board of Church and Society (UMBCS) had profoundly little to say against the weapons-packed raid used to remove Elián Gonzalez from the home of his great-uncle April 22. The philosophical 180 can be readily explained: United Methodists in alliance with the National Council of Churches were instrumental in hiring Gregory Craig, legal counsel to Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elián's father, as part of continuing solidarity with the Castro regime. Extracting Elián, even by force, was critical to their strategy to moot ongoing court proceedings, which could have led to granting Elián the right to remain in the United States.
The UMBCS is one of 13 national agencies operated by the United Methodist Church. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., with a staff of 40 and budget of nearly $4 million, it is the largest church lobby in the capital. Direct public involvement in the Elián Gonzalez case began in March, when UMBCS general secretary Thom White Wolf Fassett went to Cuba with former National Council of Churches (NCC) head Joan Brown Campbell. They met with Mr. Gonzalez. Afterwards, they announced the creation of a "humanitarian advocacy fund" to pay for an attorney to represent the father in the escalating confrontation between Mr. Gonzalez and his Miami uncle over custody of 6 -year-over Elián. That attorney was immediately named: Mr. Craig, a member of President Clinton's legal defense team during last year's impeachment proceedings. Since that time the two church agencies and Mr. Craig have become a kind of troika representing the interests of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Mr. Gonzalez before the watching world.
For both church agencies, those activities fit with longstanding support for Mr. Castro's regime. Ms. Campbell and the NCC's current general secretary, Bob Edgar, asserted that they took an interest in the case at the request of the Cuba Council of Churches-a state organ not widely regarded as representing actual Cuban churchgoers. The Cuban Council of Churches delegate who traveled to the United States with Elián's two grandmothers in January, Oden Marichal, is better known as a member of the Cuban National Assembly-a party man. At the same time, members of the Gonzalez family in both Miami and Cuba are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which is not part of the Cuban Council of Churches.
Not surprisingly, Florida Methodists are not happy with their denomination. A statement by Florida Methodist Bishop Cornelius Henderson said the move to support Mr. Gonzalez and his attorney "took place in a presumptuous manner with no prior consultation with United Methodist leadership in Florida." Church creeds emphasize the importance of both family and political freedom, Mr. Henderson stated, and "it is painful to see one's church appear to lend support to a government whose record on human rights is not acceptable by Christian standards or the principles of the United Methodist Church."
As the United Methodist Church began its nationwide General Conference May 2 in Cleveland, growing dissent within its ranks forced further action. Two weeks before the General Conference began, the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration said the fund violated denominational guidelines, and denominational leaders told Mr. Fassett to get rid of it. Administration of the fund was transferred to the NCC April 19.
The controversy does not end in UMC halls. Reports began emerging in April that Dwayne Andreas, recently retired chairman of the largest U.S. grain processor, Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), brought church agents together with Mr. Craig. Mr. Andreas, a highly controversial political campaign contributor, over the years has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to both Republican and Democratic candidates. In exchange, political analysts agree, his empire has received federal protection of the domestic sugar industry and subsidies for ethanol and grain exports-earning him the distinction, according to the Cato Institute, as the largest recipient of corporate welfare. In 1996 ADM paid $100 million in fines for price fixing.
Mr. Andreas's connections to the NCC are assorted. Last year, when the council named former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador Andrew Young as its president, Mr. Andreas made a $100,000 gift to the NCC in his honor. Mr. Young is a member of ADM's board. Mr. Andreas made two contributions to the NCC's much-politicized Burned Churches Fund: $1 million in 1996 and $200,000 in 1998. Also, ADM uses the services of Williams and Connally, Mr. Craig's law firm.
Mr. Andreas boasts other connections, too. He owns property in south Florida, including at least one hotel. He is a major donor to Barry University, whose president, Jeanne O'Laughlin, agreed in January to host a meeting between Elián and his two grandmothers from Cuba. Mr. Andreas's wife, a Barry graduate, once chaired the school's board of trustees. Among Cuban-American leaders in Miami, Mr. Andreas was rumored to be the driving force behind the meeting, which backfired when Ms. O'Laughlin announced afterwards that Elián should remain in the United States for an asylum hearing (see WORLD, April 22).
In an affidavit filed in federal district court subsequent to the meeting in her home, Ms. O'Laughlin said, "It was clear from my observations that the Cuban government was exerting control over Elián's grandmothers and the National Council of Churches." She said Mr. Edgar helped her reach that conclusion. Mr. Edgar told her that he felt "Castro himself was calling the shots." Cuban officials, he said, "dissuaded and frightened the grandmothers from visiting the Miami relatives' home," reads Ms. O'Laughlin's sworn statement. Mr. Edgar decided not to board the return flight from Miami to Washington with the grandmothers and Cuban officials, and he told Ms. O'Laughlin he "intended to withdraw the National Council of Churches from the situation and that the Cuban Interest Section would take control."
In an interview April 22, just after the raid in Miami, WORLD asked Mr. Edgar about the assertions in the affidavit. He did not dispute Ms. O'Laughlin's account of their conversation, but disagreed with her conclusions. "I had no change of position," he said. "Any perception that I did was Sister Jeanne's creation. I have respect for Sister Jeanne but she failed to understand her role as a mediator. I don't share her view that there was intrusion on the part of the Cuban government."
Mr. Edgar described the NCC role at that point as "supporting the United Methodists in what they are doing, procuring Greg Craig's services." He did not disclose that the Methodist fund for Mr. Craig had been turned over to his jurisdiction three days prior. He reiterated NCC and Methodist press releases, which maintain that no funds designated for the NCC or UMBCS have been moved to the lawyer's fund. And he would not elaborate on press releases from both agencies indicating that the fund has raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for Mr. Craig's legal fees. Both agencies have refused to disclose a list of donors, even though they operate under a tax-exempt status subject to IRS rules for charitable organizations.
"All of this has angered United Methodists like nothing else I have seen in a long time," said Jim Heidinger, publisher of Good News, a magazine of the Methodist renewal movement. It has also fueled speculation that the UMBCS was simply a willing conduit for funds already raised on Mr. Craig's behalf, according to Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. The battle for Elián Gonzalez reinvigorates the depleted standing of increasingly irrelevant church agencies, Mr. Tooley believes, and it is sure to revive debate over U.S-Cuba trade policy. Lobbying to end the trade embargo is something the two church agencies and a corporate legend like Mr. Andreas all have in common.
Mr. Tooley says Mr. Andreas is the logical source of the legal funds. Mr. Andreas met Fidel Castro at a New York dinner in October 1995, during a visit to the United Nations in which Mr. Castro also met with then-head of the NCC, Ms. Campbell, and the UMBCS head, Mr. Fassett. Mr. Andreas released a statement in support of ending the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, along with the church group leaders. He said, "Now is the time to make a friend of Castro."
That statement was followed with a meeting in Cuba with the dictator in July 1996. Mr. Andreas announced plans to build a refinery in Cuba and to use a Spanish subsidiary to circumvent the embargo. He would like to import ADM infrastructure, use Cuban grain and sugar crops (and cheap labor), and export the kind of processed food ingredients that earn ADM billions each year. ADM senior vice president Martin Andreas said in 1999 that ADM would also build vegetable oil processing facilities in Cuba if the market were opened. Talks this year between ADM and the Castro government are focusing on joint ventures like soybean production. ADM has sponsored one health exhibition in Havana and plans to host another in December. Such exhibitions are a common feature of doing business with the Castro regime, bribing the government with American dollars and services in exchange for access. And in Mr. Castro's ledger, there is no better payola at the moment than delivery of a certain 6-year-old boy.